Home: Pressing On

One looks like a child’s pinwheel, another resembles an impish face, a third suggests a mottled stingray seen through rose-colored glass. Whether a purple cosmos, yellow pansy or fuchsia foxglove, these flowers reveal themselves anew through the careful attention of Janie Gross, the Wynnewood-based artist who has pressed, dried and framed them.

Gross’s passion for nature took root in her suburban garden, and her delicate pressed-flower creations became the basis for tapestry woven pillows, print collections and most recently, a new line of hand-painted dinnerware for everyday use.

Compelled by an urge to document her fading summer garden, Gross photographed a book’s worth of pressed flowers, then added her written reflections about each. Her book, The Afterlife of Flowers (Running Press, 1999), was born. Nearly 100 images highlight the delicacy of each petal, leaf and stem, bringing them alive in vivid washes of a thousand hues.

The book jump-started a career change Gross was ripe for. After 20-plus years as a graphic designer who created logos, package design, and print collateral for everybody from TV Guide to the Philadelphia Zoo, Gross took a step back. “I made lists of all kinds: what interested me the most, what excited me,” she says. “Every single time, gardening came out on top.” So she earned a certificate in floral design from Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, and worked on what would become
her book.

After Afterlife was published, Gross’s phone rang again and again with new opportunities. Longwood Gardens wanted her to teach a course on flower pressing (which she continues teaching today); the Philadelphia Flower Show asked her to speak and to judge pressed plants; Martha Stewart invited Gross onto her show.

The final leap into a complete career change came with a call from a large decorative pillow manufacturer in California who thought that Gross’s bold, graphic images would work perfectly in fabric. Her decorative pillows are now available at Macy’s, Kohl’s, Linens ’n Things and other stores across the United States and Canada. Every flower represents something she grows in her garden, from fiery red anemones to pretty blue cupid’s darts.

“Janie’s pillows are wildly successful,” says Cecily Kellogg, manager of the Art Shop at Moore College of Art & Design in Philadelphia, a store that Gross, a graduate of the school, helped found when she served on the college’s alumni board. “People love them for their simplicity and beauty.”

Her latest venture is with Bed Bath & Beyond to sell ceramic dinnerware hand-painted with her signature pressed-flower motifs. The 12-piece collection, which debuted in March, focuses on red anemones, coral gerbera daisies, yellow gazania and purple clematis.

Gross is touched and surprised by the impact of her work. “Customers write to me daily about how happy they are with the pillows,” she says. “That’s what I always wanted — to express how I feel when I experience nature and to share that pleasure with others.”

Gross was introduced to the art of flower pressing at the 1998 Philadelphia Flower Show’s oshibana (Japanese flower-pressing) display. She began researching the art and found the perfect press — one that allows air to flow as the flowers dry and “doesn’t smash them,” she says. She also learned about Japan’s newly formed International Pressed Flower Art Society. The group was sponsoring a competition for a logo. “Even though I had put that work behind me, I thought, ‘I can do this,’” says Gross. “I sent a design to Tokyo — and I won.” She set off to Tokyo to study with Nobuo Sugino, a well-known flower-pressing master in Japan, cramming a six-week course into two weeks.

Gross came away with a new way of looking at flowers. “Pressing reveals parts of a flower that you would never otherwise see,” she says. “You really get a sense of amazing delicacy and symmetry, as well as some of the decay that comes as the flower dries. I love things that are a little beat up.”

That may explain the collection of antique shop signs hung on the walls of the 1920s stone house she shares with her husband, Peter, and their youngest daughter, Julie. “I’m drawn to them because of my love of typography.” Gross says. “Plus, they remind me of New England, where I'm from.”

Upstairs in her skylit attic studio, floral images dominate, along with a few pieces of painted furniture. “There was a time when I painted every surface,” says Gross. “My husband used to joke that you couldn’t stand still too long or I’d paint you.”

Lately, she has begun a series of mixed-media prints inspired by her observations of nature. The larger, more abstract prints explore the winter garden, while smaller ones resemble botanical prints of single flowers.

“It’s all just been an incredible evolution,” says Gross. “I invested my time in what I really loved — and it’s become my living. It’s what the books all claim you can do.”